How Nickelodeon Changed TV Forever (VIDEO)

How Nickelodeon Changed TV Forever
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In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explore how Nickelodeon changed TV forever.

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The Rise of Nickelodeon

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Ask any Gen-X adult what the golden age of children’s television was, and you would be hesitant to find anyone that doesn’t immediately claim the 90s as their holy grail. Before cell phones and the digital age reigned supreme, television was a very real way we could all connect. Until 1979, there were no channels specifically devoted to kids’ TV—and then, along came Nickelodeon to change the face of the medium forever! Nicktoons, slime-covered escapades, handy-dandy notebooks, and so much more awaited kids of all ages, now just a remote click away.

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So, how did Nickelodeon, a studio that originally began as “Pinwheel”  for two to five-year-old preschoolers, become a major brand and a cultural phenomenon? How did its empire grow to have its own filmmaking studio on the Universal Studios lot and become the largest destination for children on cable? Grab your posse and your crew, kick up your feet, pop open a bottle of orange soda—we double dare you to bring it back to 90s Nickelodeon for a trip to the shores of Gullah Gullah Island and beyond as we explore how Nickelodeon changed children’s television.

The path to Nick’s success can be traced through four core pillars of content: Kid Focused Entertainment, Non-Educational TV, Nicktoons, and themed programming blocks.

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TIER 1: KID-FOCUSED ENTERTAINMENT

The channel’s unique understanding of kid perspective, revolutionary branding, and targeted programming blocks were ahead of their time, shifting the television landscape at large. Network television pre-Nickelodeon was simply not delivering the fun that kids wanted to see. Instead, the focus was largely on education. In other words, Saturday morning cartoons were maybe the closest alternative if you didn’t want to feel like you were being preached to. Children were not really viewed as a proper audience, but merely a means to advertise products or to throw on mindless fluff that parents couldn’t bear to be around for more than a few minutes.

All of that would change with Nickelodeon. Nick did not want to be the network parents desired their kids to watch—it wanted to be the channel for kids, featuring topics and concepts they would love to watch. The creatives refused to talk down to their audience, treating them as actual people. The biggest spark for change came in the form of imported You Can’t Do That On Television. This revolutionary program introduced the green slime that would become the channel’s trademark moving forward.

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Who would have thought a simple Canadian import would open the doors for so much of the programming content that would follow? In the blink of an eye, completely singular game shows unlike any other became the network’s main priority—between obstacle-course-laden Legends of the Hidden Temple and Jeopardy-esque Double Dare; kids had their fair share of high-quality options. Nick’s hands-off approach to programming allowed for creative expression, the likes of which had never been seen, and allowed for vast expansion into absurd territory.

TIER 2: NON-EDUCATIONAL LIVE-ACTION TV

Nick Studios at Universal Studios opened in 1990, allowing a tour behind the curtain on the production alley of their actual shows. This tied into arguably Nick’s greatest achievement—a wacky, edgy, ridiculous sketch comedy show for kids, the first of its kind, titled All That. Essentially a kid’s take on Saturday Night Live, All That indoctrinated the phrase “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?” into the homes of millions of Americans. Eventually, the show would spin off into the likes of Kenan & Kel and The Amanda Show, propelled by its off-color skits and impressive roster of nightly musical performers. Love it or hate it, the messiness of All That was a veritable life-changer.

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In the wake of their success in game shows and reality television, it seemed like no challenge was impossible for Nickelodeon. This led to an exploration into the murky waters of scripted shows. Each seemed to have their charms, from the first-ever, Hey Dude, to Salute Your Shorts, and everything in between. Diversity in casting and a commitment to realistically portraying kids set these shows apart from what was appearing on other networks. There was far more reality in Pete & Pete than could be found in any given episode of Saved by the Bell, and that’s without even setting aside Artie, the tights-wearing bodyguard! With Clarissa Explains It All, audiences fell in love with Melissa Joan Hart’s nuanced portrayal of the non-conformist teen with an especially textured wardrobe. Clarissa was the first female character in a major show that was actually smart and independent, continuing Nickelodeon’s barrier-breaking path throughout the 90s.

Through reality, game shows, and scripted content, Nickelodeon was becoming a force to be reckoned with, the likes of which could stand tall with the big networks at the time. But what about the world of animation? Saturday morning programming was a whole other ballgame for kids—what if cartoons could be watched by all ages, capturing the zaniness of imagination and fun at any hour of the day?

TIER 3: CARTOON REVOLUTION

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In 1991, Nickelodeon came onto the cartoon scene in a major way with the launch of their three core, aptly titled “Nicktoons.” Rugrats, Doug, and The Ren and Stimpy Show brought a whole new audience to the channel at just the right time. Each delivered outrageous quirks, bizarre humor, and layered characters—the most successful of the three initially, Ren and Stimpy, was a veritable animation-lovers dream, relishing the nastiness of close-up gross-outs that SpongeBob would run with years later. This excellent trio of animated hits would create the template for the Nickelodeon brand, as it spawned other iconic entries, including variety series Kablam!, the hilariously hipster Rocko’s Modern Life, and even Spongebob SquarePants!

Most animated shows at the time were too concerned with being ridiculously cute. A PUP NAMED SCOOBY-DOO, MUPPET BABIES,  and MY LITTLE PONY are perfect examples. Or they idealized trends as long-form shows with toy merchandising to back them up, like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, HE-MAN, and THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. The Nicktoons took a different approach entirely. In Rugrats, the babies were drawn in a rough sketchiness with oversized heads, meant to reflect the actual unspoken ugliness of some babies. For Doug, creator Jim Jinkins wanted to make an animated series not centered around a cocky jock or an uber-loser. No, Jinkins argued that most kids exist somewhere in the middle. In following Doug Funny on his journey, millions of kids around the world saw themselves in Doug’s relatable awkwardness, perfectly captured in his daily journal entries.

The Ren and Stimpy Show made cringe-comedy realness and surreal characterizations its bread and butter, exploring the relationship between best friends. Neurotic dog Ren and simple-minded cat Stimpy have misadventures from curing toothaches to earning Snipe-Hunting badges, all while singing “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” that are consistently heartwarming. Without these three core Nicktoons, American animation could have perhaps taken decades longer to evolve. No need to hit the History Eraser button.

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TIER 4: THEMED PROGRAMMING BLOCKS

As Nickelodeon ballooned in popularity, targeted programming blocks grew organically in an impressive, previously unforeseen manner. Channel mascot Stick Stickly [STICK-LEE], a literal popsicle stick, brought vibrance to the network through his pun-fueled jokes and life lessons. Similarly, Face became eventual Nick Jr.’s chief of programming; a disembodied head filling the entire screen with his exaggerated expressions, Face always left us with a smile before an episode of Blue’s Clues or Gullah Gullah Island! Noggin, a dream child of Sesame Workshop and Nickelodeon, spun off into a separate channel more targeted at the kind of educational media that was originally a prime focus of what not to do. The difference was Nick now could do it better.

SNICK, or Saturday Nick, was the Saturday nights, boundary-pushing excellence that had to be the far and away favorite for outsiders. Here, you could find Clarissa Explains It All and Kablam! of course, but you could also find one of the best horror anthologies ever made in Are You Afraid of the Dark? Each night, the Midnight Society gathered around the campfire to tell a tale of scary monsters, the afterlife, haunted bicycles, and mysterious dollhouses. A toss of magic dust into the fire transported us into this delightful gateway horror treat that scared kids before it was cool to do so. According to BuzzFeed, this dust was actually a non-dairy creamer. Eventually, the hugely popular SNICK was replaced by TEENick.

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No matter what kind of programming or age bracket, Nickelodeon had a block custom-built for maximum entertainment value. No one else had put this much thought into what kids wanted to see, let alone what would actually keep them engaged for hours on end. Further programming blocks, including Friday Night Nicktoons, Friday Night Slimetime, and NickRewind, would always aim to recapture the glory days of Nickelodeon.

To pinpoint the beginning of Nick’s downward slide, look no further than the mid-2000s. In its constant attempts to reinvent itself, the channel lost its way, becoming far too tween-focused. They started to lose sight of what made the channel so special in the first place. In 2005, the doors were closed on Nick Studios at Universal Florida forever. A changing of the guard found Nick producing forgettable shows that lacked the care and attention to detail of earlier productions. Nick morphed from the underdog channel with its own merchandise, licensing, and magazine and became a money-making juggernaut of endless SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer specials.

Nevertheless, Nickelodeon’s innumerable accomplishments can’t be ignored. They started a cartoon revolution, bringing shows into the mainstream in a major way that proved they had creative and artistic merit. The reverberations from Nickelodeon are endless—without them, there would be no Cartoon Network, no Boomerang, no Disney Junior, no ABC Family—err, Freeform, no PBS Kids.

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Maybe we can’t stay kids forever, but retro Nickelodeon will go down in history as some of the best-produced television of all time. Its mark on both the cultural footprint of childhood and TV as we know it will continue to reign supreme forevermore. The channel is certainly wildly different in the modern day—however, without Nickelodeon, we never would have had such an influx of viewing options for kids.

Even today, people still crave nostalgic revisits to their favorite Nickelodeon worlds; meta treat “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling”, Emmy-winning “Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie”, “Are You Afraid of the Dark”, All That, and The Legends of the Hidden Temple all re-emerged in the last decade to prove that kids still crave more classic Nick. In the immortal words of Stick Stickly, “You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. But you can’t pick your friend’s nose!”

Do you miss those orange VHS tapes? Have you ever gotten slimed at Nick Studios? What was your favorite Nicktoon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Be sure to like, subscribe, and hit the notification bell to never miss a video… This is FandomWire, delivering Vital Information for your everyday life!

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Written by Reilly Johnson

Articles Published: 436

Reilly Johnson is a businessman, journalist, and a staple in the online entertainment community contributing to some of the largest entertainment pages in the world. Currently, Reilly is the President of FandomWire.